The fourth feature film from Jim Mickle (director of the wonderful Stake Land and We Are What We Are), there’s just something about Cold In July. Something grimy. Something sleazy. Something unsettling. Something dark and taboo. Something that sings to your reptile brain, the seductive siren call of violence and chaos. While it looks great on DVD, you can never quite shake the feeling that you should be watching Cold In July on a battered VHS pirate sometime in the ‘80s (when the film is set) for that authentic exploitation experience.

Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone breaking into his home, meek East Texan store owner Richard Dane (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall) confronts and accidentally shoots dead an intruder in his living room. Feted as a hero by his small town, Dane doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with his actions or the sweep-it-under-the-rug attitude of the local sheriff (screenwriter Nick Damici) who’s a mite quick to get the unlucky home invader planted.

Guiltily attending the burglar’s funeral, Dane encounters the dead man’s father, the terrifying white trash criminal Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), an ex-con, fresh out of the penitentiary. “So you’re watching them put shit in the hole,” comments Russel. “Very Christian of you.” before scaring the bejeezus out of Dane by telling him how much his young son resembles him, letting him know he’s been watching.

Angry and mean, Russel wants revenge for the death of his estranged son, begins stalking Dane and his family, leaving bullets in Dane’s son’s bed and generally behaving like a cut-price Max Cady. So far, so Cape Fear, and just as Cold In July is shaping up to be a decent, if overly familiar, cat-and-mouse thriller about a family in jeopardy with Shepard’s diabolical antagonist, always two steps ahead of the country bumpkin cops, forcing Hall’s mild-mannered family man to grow a pair and turn vigilante…well, telling you any more would ruin the first of the many twists in Cold In July’s corkscrew plot as the film slips from your grasp, becoming something else entirely, a pitch-black, mournful meditation on fathers and sons with a B-movie, exploitation sensibility, Dane and Russel, forced together by circumstance, uncovering some nasty truths with the aid of pig-farming, sleazeball private eye Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson).

With its throbbing, minimalist synth score, spare, stripped down storytelling, morally complex antiheroes, quotable tough guy dialogue and crisp widescreen visuals you’d be forgiven for confusing Jim Mickle’s Cold In July with John Carpenter in his ‘70s and ‘80s prime (even the font used for the titles reminds you of Carpenter) and, as with Stake Land and We Are What We Are, Mickle and Damici don’t put a food wrong with this adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s pulpy novel, delivering an atmospheric, violent slice of ‘80s-set neo-noir that harkens back to the sleazy, exploitation thrills of movies like Rolling Thunder while sneakily deconstructing, even as it celebrates, the tough, outlaw manliness and code of honour of its protagonists.

As Dane, Hall is the antithesis of his most famous role, TV’s Dexter, essaying a mild, nervous family man pushed to his limits and driven by a sense of justice while Shepard gives a portrayal of such menacing Western masculinity, all piss and vinegar, as the vengeful father that it almost rivals his most iconic turn as The Right Stuff’s Chuck Yeager; a superannuated aging tough guy to give Liam Neeson a run for his money, his burgeoning father-and-son relationship with Hall evokes the broken families and tortured male archetypes of Shepard’s own plays and writing. Perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure though is Don Johnson who’s a joy and obviously having a whale of a time as the gaudy, rhinestone cowboy Jim Bob, slithering through the film, stealing every scene he’s in. A recurring character in Lansdale’s books, you could stand to see Jim Bob’s further adventures.

Mean, moody and magnificent, Cold In July is a gritty, unpredictable, entertaining, vacation in Hell.

 

DVD Review: Cold In July
Keeps you guessing and gripped up to and beyond its climactic Grand Guignol bloodbath
4.0Overall Score
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